London Diary

Wendy Steiner

Half an hour to get to the butcher’s and back, an hour to rent my son a clarinet, and 45 minutes to meet my children’s plane at Heathrow. It’s been a month since they went off for the holidays. I have written what I needed to write, the windows and upholstery have been cleaned, and there have been entertainments, epiphanies. By now I find myself looking wistfully at children in the street. It is time for mine to come home.

Meat in hand, I open the front door. Plaster dust and dead letters are strewn over the hall carpet. Through a huge hole in the wall I can see into my flat.

A break-in. Again. Four months ago a robber stole all my jewellery by slipping the lock. Now the locks have held and someone has broken through the wall. What did they steal this time? The police will take forever to sort this out and I don’t have time. How could they make a hole in the wall in half an hour? I stamp my foot. What’s going on here?

I go to unlock the door – I’m not going through that hole and the meat has to be put away so that I can get to the airport. The clarinet will have to wait. But I can’t get the key in to turn the mortice lock. Maybe they ruined the locks, too. I have to go to the airport and there’s a hole in my wall and I can’t even open the door to put the meat away. ‘What’s going on here? Damn. Come down here.’ I shout some more; I want someone to see how angry I am. I don’t want to look at broken plaster – I want to see who did this and make them know that I am furious.

And then someone does come down – a nice-looking black man in his late twenties who has a sort of smile on his face. I watch him descend the stairs toward me. Is he visiting upstairs? Has he seen the robbers? ‘What’s going on here?’ I roar.

He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and I think he is going to walk past me through the front door. But he grabs me from behind, puts one gloved hand over my mouth, and says: ‘You’ll be quiet if you want to go on breathing.’

I go limp, slumped over his arm. So this is how it happens, so quickly and so simply. And then I look up and there is a woman coming down the stairs, little and black, youngish. She says: ‘Ach, she’s shaking.’ And to me: ‘Stop shaking. He’s not going to hurt you.’ I can’t stop shaking, but I am quiet, and he lets go and disappears through the hole in the wall.

She and I are left looking at each other with saucer eyes. ‘I have to pick my children up at the airport,’ I tell her.

‘Open the door,’ she says. I am still holding the keys and the bag of meat and I tell her I can’t open the door, I’ve tried. I give her the keys.

‘You have to start with the lower lock,’ I explain, and she gets the key in, which I hadn’t managed to do, but she turns it the wrong way. ‘Turn it away from the door,’ I say in a low voice. I am cold. She unlocks the mortice and then the Yale lock and the door opens. We go in.

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